How Disney Solved Its Skills-Gap Problem

There are some valuable training lessons to be learned from Walt Disney’s method of developing world-class animators, but companies in China seem to be the only ones taking note.

This month’s Vanity Fair magazine features an article on the cohort of animators, now in their 50s, who revolutionized the movie industry in the past two decades by turning out innovative, blockbuster animated features such as The Little Mermaid and Toy Story. As it turns out, they all had something in common: They all attended CalArts — a private, Disney-conceived arts college outside Los Angeles that accepted its first students in 1969 — and in particular, the college’s Character Animation Program.

Here’s what this has to do with human resources.

The Disney Co. essentially created animated movies, making its fortune on cartoon characters and movies about them. From the 1930s on, nine animation artists drew the characters on which the company’s fortunes were based, working together on movies such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and then other classics, including Bambi and101 Dalmations. They turned cartooning into an art form.

If this was a strategy class, we would say Disney’s success came from creating beautiful, timeless movies pitched at children, but ones that parents would like as well — a lucrative market that had not been tapped before.  They did it with a core competency in animation that no one else had. That competency was based on those nine guys.

Disney had a surprising hit in 1966 with the The Aristocats, proving that the customer market for child-friendly movies was still there, even in that turbulent decade.  But it had a succession problem.  The nine animators could not live forever, nor would the ideas they had necessarily continue to work in the future without being updated. By the late 1960s, Disney’s core competence was retiring, and with it, the fortunes of the company.

It certainly seemed to be a mistake that Disney had not trained a new generation of animators, but in fairness, animation was not a skill you could teach to just anyone, as it requires a high level of artistic ability and skill before one even starts training. The creativity associated with innovation isn’t something that can be easily taught.

Here’s what did not happen: Disney did not commission a study finding that there was a “skills shortage” that could only be met by the immigration of animators from other countries. Nor did Disney claim that “art schools were failing,” and then direct the company’s lobbyists to lean on the University of California to have its arts programs shift to producing animation artists.

Walt Disney knew that traditional art schools were unlikely to produce what his company needed. He wanted artists with classical skills, but ones who also knew the practical, hands-on skills needed to make animated movies.

How did he get that? He essentially created his own school, playing midwife — alongside his brother Roy — to the 1961 merger of two small art schools and finding them a campus. He and the Disney Co. set up the Character Animation Program, a new and separate initiative that existed nowhere else. Who taught the classes? Disney’s retired animation artists. At graduation every year, the company would hold competitions to see which of the graduates it would hire, and it hired a lot of them. The graduates of this new program arguably saved the Disney Co. and changed the motion picture industry forever.

Yes, they eventually helped companies elsewhere, but remember, this was not a Disney training program. The students were there on their own time and dime, although the latter was certainly subsidized.

Are any companies thinking like this now? Yes, in China. I’ve seen several companies creating their own colleges and universities to get the combination of basic and hands-on skills they rightly believe no college by itself could provide. I’ve seen many Indian companies do exactly what Disney did, adopting local colleges, including some in the United States, and offering funds, instructors and curriculum to get the IT graduates they want.

Why aren’t U.S. companies doing this? Could it be that it is just easier to ask the government to do it for them?

By Peter Cappelli
Human Resource Executive Online

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